By Kevin Taylor

     Many Childbloom parents have discovered that having time to practice during the summer doesn’t guarantee practice. There is nothing inherently motivating about having a lot of time on your hands. Hands just have more time to be idle or play video games.

The recent research in the neurological mechanisms of learning and expertise tells us why having time to practice doesn’t necessarily motivate practice – and what to do about it.


One of the leading experts in “expertise” is Dr. Anders Eriksson of Florida State University. His research concludes that by just doing something (he calls it “participating in a domain”) doesn’t guarantee learning and improvement at that thing. That is why musicians can develop advanced skills for the first few years and then in the next 20, not get any better at it. This is the same for surgeons, craftsmen or any other person doing a skill-based activity.

He says, “If you keep doing what you’re doing all you’re doing is automating and maybe making it less effort-full. If you are going to improve, its not going to happen by chance. Its going to happen because you’re monitoring what you are doing. Deliberate practice – that’s when you have the optimal condition for learning.”

What is “deliberate practice”? It is a practice that allows for immediate feedback (that is one key to the attraction of video games and where their creators have it right).

Anders says that “One hour with a good coach is going to improve you more than years of just playing. ”Deliberate practice relies on a teacher guiding a student. High levels of performance are related to this necessary training. So the one ingredient that makes practice effective is a teacher.

Of course, this is a great thing for professional teachers and coaches to hear. It keeps us employed and justifies our existence. However, I believe it is the best teacher who trains the student to be his or her own teacher; it is the teacher’s responsibility to become obsolete and irrelevant in the life of the self-learning student. Although we may engage with a student for years (many of my students stay with me for 10-plus years), eventually the student must know how to learn and improve by himself on into adulthood. We must communicate, not only  what we have to teach, but how to teach oneself. This becomes apparent during summer holidays when the student may or may not languish depending upon how much learning is taken on.

This summer I sat down for four days with Dr. Joaquin Farias, in Toronto. Dr. Farias is a researcher on the biomechanics of task motion, neurology and how this applies to musical training. He is a specialist in how our brains learn and what we can do to turn the doing brain into the learning brain.

Here are 10 keys points these experts stress (and which we know work):

1) Practice must be meaningful and be full of meaningful connections. It is meaning that allows our memory to accept and store the information-be it fingering, postural elements, difficult passages, or music theory relationships. We need to have mental representations to improve memory connections. That is why learning the language and theory of music aids in those connections. That is also why when a student doesn’t have a regular lesson not much happens; the lesson (the teacher or the other kids in the class) provides the meaningful context for playing and learning.

2) Goals. We cannot progress without a destination. Goals can be long-term, but it is the short-term goals like mastering a passage or finger movement that motivate us to continue day to day – not the iconic image of being another Taylor Swift on stage. Although iconic images may motivate a child to begin an activity, it doesn’t sustain them because they do not see how their icon has practiced thousands of times off stage.

3) Reoccurring assessments are needed. Teachers and parents help do this. But students need to know if their results are worthy. This suggests that students need to develop tastes and continually refine them. They can develop objective assessments with the use of video and audio recording. That is why parental words of validation are superior to words of praise.

4) Relaxed and slow play is most effective. Dr. Farias suggests that proper practice is just learning to remember. What our “doing brain” is doing must be transmitted to our “remembering” brain. This is best done in an engaged, quiet and relaxed state. Stress interferes with proper learning. It creates “static.” No matter the IQ of a child, the hands are very stupid. They need a patient teacher and the teacher is the child.

5) Short and focused activity has better results. According to Dr. Farias, the brain cannot receive more than about 30 seconds of focused material at a time without losing the proper attention that reinforces it.

6) Proper repetition. Although repetition is critical for learning, there is a right way and wrong way to do it. If the repetition is done with a distracted concentration, it is barely useful. Anders calls this “naive practice.”

Dr. Farias suggests that 6 repetitions at a time, with a short break in between, is optimal for retention and success.

7) Exit our comfort zone. This is a common attribute of experts that Anders reports. We need to go beyond what is comfortable. For children this might mean practicing 3 days a week instead of 2.

8) Immediate feedback. Beside a more thoughtful, longer-term assessment of progress, the student needs immediacy of feedback. This is provided by the teacher but also can be provided by the parent. This feedback needn’t be false praise, but simple and immediate recognition of accomplishment. (See #3).

9) Other research suggests that the there is really no such thing as a maximum functioning “night person.” We are smartest about an hour after waking and our mental abilities of memory, problem solving, and physical coordination diminish with the fatigue of the day. This suggests morning learning is easiest, which is fine for the summer, but difficult when school starts. So weekend morning playing is important, as is practice without fatigue.

10) Another discovery reported by Dr. Farias is that the brain maps the body every three minutes. It takes an assessment of all the postural and physical boundaries of our body and our movement and distributes neuropathways that reflect that. This suggests that for optimal learning of arm/hand/finger motion, we should take in information in a similar physical posture as when we wish to put it out (perform). “Sit correctly!” says your teacher. The teacher was right! Now we know why.

To sum it up:

• Practice deliberately. Set goals.

• To learn best, play slow and quietly.

• Play in short spurts of focussed concentration.

• Provide immediate validation and self-assessments.

None of this requires a summer break to accomplish.

Kevin Taylor is Founder of the Childbloom Guitar Program